St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Peace

Listen!
Isaiah 9:2-7 | Matthew 2:1-12
Last week we heard and reflected on the words of the angels to the shepherds – glad tidings of great joy. We didn’t pay much attention to the detail of the rest of their message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace”.

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah today picks up the theme: “he is named… prince of peace… there shall be endless peace”.

On Monday this week we got a stark reminder in Sydney on why peace is such a recurrent theme in our hopes and our prayers; why peace is so longed for, so needed, and so tragically absent. And while our eyes were understandably turned to events so close to home, in Pakistan over 140 children were murdered in their school in an act of mindless brutality, further evidence, were it needed of our desperate need for peace. And then just yesterday, in Cairns, a mother arrested and charged with the murder of eight children, seven of them her own.

And it all doesn’t really feel very much like Christmas.

But perhaps it might feel a bit like advent.

For the story of the birth of Christ is set in a time and place of violence and bloodshed. As I read the gospel this week, I was struck by a phrase that I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about before. The Magi come to Jerusalem, and ask about the new king born, and “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him”.

To the extent that I’ve even noticed those last few words “and all Jerusalem with him” I guess I’ve just discarded them as hyperbole. But this week they’ve taken on a different meaning. Herod was known as a violent, paranoid ruler – to be honest, there weren’t many who made it to (and kept) positions of power under the auspices of Rome about whom that couldn’t have been said. And when a paranoid, violent man is frightened, all those around him are very wise to be frightened too.

As things would turn out, Herod’s fear would lead not to violence against the people of Jerusalem, but against the children of Bethlehem. Children of his own people, victims of the struggle for power that defined Herod’s life. The parallels with the Taliban slaughter of Pakistani children this week hardly needs to be drawn.

And as then, so now; violence creates fear, and fear leads in turn to violence, and the cycle continues.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace”.

“he is named… prince of peace… there shall be endless peace”.

Each year, around this time, I’m reminded of the words of the U2 song, Peace on Earth:

“Jesus, in the song you wrote, the words are sticking in my throat – Peace on earth – I hear it every Christmas time, but hope and history won’t rhyme, so what’s it worth, this peace on earth?”

And I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t have an answer, I have three. And perhaps between them something might emerge.

The first lies in my original reflections for this Sunday – for once this year, I started to sketch out what I might say each Sunday in advent weeks in advance (a mistake I won’t make again). I wanted to take the four theme words – hope, love, joy and peace, and link them in with aspects of the Christmas story.

And I chose to link “peace” with the story of the Magi because while it highlights the greatest violence in the Christmas narrative – Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – it also offers a vision of another way.

For in the story of the Magi what we have is the other; the foreigners, the outsiders, the worshippers of other Gods. Those from far away come to worship. Not to convert – for we have no reason to believe, in the narrative or tradition, that the Magi became god-fearers, or followers of Judaism or Christianity; but they came with their faiths and their insights and their wisdom, and they became part of the story of God’s people.

For that story has always had, in its background, that promise; that the people of God would be a light to the nations, blessed so that through them all the people of the world might be blessed; that through the throne of David their would be peace and justice and righteousness throughout the world.

The second lies in what is really the simple truth lying at the core of the Christmas message – indeed, at the core of the Christian message – that God comes into the mess, into the brokenness; that God doesn’t stand apart and judge, but becomes an actor, and takes his share – and far more – of the suffering and mindless paranoid violence that the world has to offer. That God comes into the world not to rule it, not to control it, but to offer it a different way, an alternative to the cycle of violence and hate and fear and more violence; an alternative of forgiveness, and reconciliation, and hope.

And my third answer comes from perhaps the most unlikely of sources – Kendrick Ferris. This is certainly the first, and probably the last time, that I will ever quote a tweet by an Olympic Weightlifter as part of a sermon. For Mr Ferris tweeted this week: “I can’t remain the same and expect to make a impact on this world”.

There is a saying, attributed to alcoholics anonymous, that the definition of insanity is keeping on doing the same thing, and expecting to get different results. And yet it is an insanity that we as a society, perhaps even as a species, seem addicted to. We keep on responding to violence with violence, anger to anger, fear to fear. We see a video of an aid-worker beheaded, and we respond with drone strikes. We see Arabic writing on a flag in a window, and we respond with vitriol against another faith. And don’t get me wrong, this is no diatribe against us in the western world, it is a characteristic of humanity: we see children educated in schools outside our control and we slaughter them; we see girls who insist on their right to go to school and we shoot them.

And we know, we know that all we are doing is perpetuating the cycle of violence. And there is the wisdom in Kendrick Ferris: “I can’t remain the same and expect to make a impact on this world”.

And this week we also saw the alternative. Seeing Moslems, especially Moslem women, afraid to take public transport, fearing a backlash against the events of Martin Place (not unreasonably, given the unconscionable report of events by some sections of the media), Australians of all faiths and none, of all cultures and national backgrounds, started to use the #illridewithyou hashtag on social media to declare their willingness to stand up against any racist backlash that might emerge.

Empty symbolism, some called it.

Symbolism, yes, but not empty. For this was symbolism which said “I refuse to be part of this cycle of violence. I refuse to blame you or your faith or your nation for the acts of another. And I will raise my voice as a person who believes in the possibility of peace, who rejects the narrative of the inevitability of revenge and violence.”

Peace on earth? No. Not yet. Perhaps not ever, if by peace you mean that there is no more violence, no more conflict, no more hatred, no more prejudice, no more oppression.

But a way of peace on earth? An alternative to violence? A way to move beyond “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? An alternative founded in reconciliation, in love of enemy, in the power of forgiveness?

Perhaps that is the peace that entered the world at Christmas, the alternative that God made real by becoming part of the mess, the story that the Magi acted out when those who were from far away came near to the Christ child.

Perhaps it is the path of peace, not the destination, that was given to us at Christmas.

Amen

Joy

Listen!
Isaiah 52:7-10 | Luke 2:8-20
One of the unavoidable realities, it seems, of modern life, is that Christmas – or rather, advent – is a time of busyness, a time of running around trying to get everything done. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of videos doing the rounds in sort of Christian Facebook circles, each in their own way trying to remind the viewer that Advent is supposed to be about getting ready for the mystery of Christmas, a time of reflection, preparation, prayer.

One of these videos included the line “if you reach Christmas and collapse in a heap, you haven’t done advent right”. And while I have a lot of sympathy for the desire to encourage more reflection and less headless chicken running around, I had to feel as if such a line could only be written by someone who (a) doesn’t work for a Church and (b) doesn’t have children – or grandchildren!

And then I thought back to the last couple of Christmas’, and to kMotion, and I thought – there are a lot of Christmas kMotion volunteers – and a lot of the kids who come, who are going to reach Christmas and collapse in a heap precisely because they have done advent. Because they have spent the time exploring and entering into the mystery; in fact, they’ve thrown themselves into it so fully that there is nothing left.

And all those people who have given their energy over advent to preparing meals for family celebrations; writing cards to distant friends; volunteering to help at school events; helping others via the SES or RFS; feeding the needy at The Dish, or Exodus; or the thousand other ways that we spend our time and energy for others, for relationships, for communities at this busy time of year; and I wonder – perhaps collapsing in a heap on Christmas because we have given ourselves for others isn’t so far from doing advent right after all.

Not to say we shouldn’t seek time to reflect, to pray, to read the stories: but maybe it’s ok for it to be a time of activity, of celebration, of joy…

Because for all the solemnity and seriousness, all the profound truth and wisdom and theology that is embedded into the story of Christmas, at its heart it is a story of joy.

How beautiful, wrote the psalmist, How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, brings good news, announces salvation
The sentinels lift their voices, and sing for joy, for they see the Lord returning to Zion.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy” said the angel to the shepherds – and when all was done, they returned to the hillside glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard.

But “Joy” is one of those words that turns out to be a bit harder to define than you expect, certainly the way it is used in the scriptures. Surely it is not just happiness, not just satisfaction or pleasure. It feels somehow deeper, more enduring, and at the same time perhaps more elusive than that.

C.S. Lewis spoke of his life as being, in a sense, the pursuit of Joy – of a numinous reality, once glimpsed, in a moment of glorious revelation, and ever thereafter in the corner of his eye, just beyond, just out of sight.

There is a sense in which Joy is that reality which is more real than what we see and taste and touch; the reality which is God’s creation, God’s future, God’s kingdom; the reality which the stories that bookend our Bible – the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem – try in poetry and imagery to give us a glimpse of.

The Truth that underlies the who of creation – the truth of the love, the faithfulness, and the ultimate reliability of God. Our Joy, and our Hope, our Love, our Peace.
So the angels came and declared good news of great joy. In the birth of a child. A child that they describe with three powerful and loaded words…. born a saviour, the messiah, the Lord.

A saviour. Now there’s a word that we have laden down with so much spiritual meaning that we find it hard to hear it fresh. It’s not a special word, not a religious word. It meant exactly what it says on the box – someone who will save you. No ‘from your sins’, no ‘from hell’. Just ‘one who will save you’. To someone living on the edges of society; to a people living under Roman oppression, surely to be told ‘you will be saved’ would have had far more of a political sound than a religious one.

In fact, of course, the angels did not say what Jesus came to save them from. Perhaps that’s because the answer would not be the same for any two people. Perhaps because what he would save you from would depend on what you needed to be saved from.

Messiah, or Christ, on the other hand, that’s a religious word. The one anointed, anointed by God. Set apart by God for a special purpose; and in particular, for religious and political leadership. Kings were anointed, as were priests; the anointed one would be both.

And more even than that, more than saviour, anointed priest and king, the one who was born as the lord. Now that word, kyrios, lord, can have a very human meaning – the master, the boss. But it is the very same word that the shepherds use when they say “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”. The baby born, and the God who made the birth known to them through God’s messengers, the angels, are named with the same title, kyrios, Lord.

The whole of the gospel is here in these few verses. The birth is announced to the outsiders, with the promise that he will save them from whatever they need saving from, that he will be their king and their priest, for he is their God. No wonder “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Here, then, is Joy. Here is the mystery, the numinous good news that eludes our description, evades all efforts to pin it down; the Good News that is Emmanuel; the Good News that is salvation; the Good News that set the shepherds praising and glorifying God – though you can be sure that if you asked them just why they were so happy they would have been hard pressed to give a coherent answer.

Here is the point of advent. Whether our advent be a time of reflection and quiet or a rush of good and worthy and important busyness; here is the thing that underlies both, that gives meaning to the response of both Mary and Martha; here – just beyond our reach, just out of sight, beckoning us onwards – “further in further up” – towards Bethlehem, towards the mystery of our faith, the source of our Joy

Amen

Beloved

Listen!
Luke 1:26-38 | Matthew 1:18-21
Last week, the first week of advent, we remembered the prophets – the ones who pointed the way, who started us on our journey towards Bethlehem.

This week, the second week, we remember the family – Mary, and Joseph, and their journey to Bethlehem, and to the birth of their child.

For Mary and Joseph, the journey begins with the appearance of an angel. Or in fact, two appearances, if you take both gospel readings and combine them.
Which, incidentally, is something that we do with the Christmas story, and perhaps don’t realise we are doing it. The story as we tell it each year, in carols and readings and nativity scenes, isn’t found in any of the gospels; it only emerges from a combination of Matthew and Luke.

And on one level there’s nothing wrong with that; we read the stories together to get a more complete view of the gospel narrative than any one viewpoint would give us. That’s why there are four gospels, not just one!

But its always worth noticing who is telling us what – for the parts of the story that they choose to include are actually part of the broader themes that the different gospel writers are emphasising.

So Luke has the angel appearing to Mary – the young, unmarried, girl – the nobody, according to the customs of the day. Someone whose word was not valid in court, who had no financial independence or rights – someone essentially only one step above property; currently belonging to her father, soon to belong to her husband.
And it is Luke who gives us the Magnificat, the throwing down of the powerful and the raising up of the oppressed, the prophecy of the overturning of the social order.
And Luke gives us the shepherds; the distrusted outsiders, as the first to hear the news.

For Matthew, on the other hand, whether or not an angel appeared to Mary is entirely irrelevant. What matters to him is Joseph, the man. For in Matthew’s telling at the core of the revelation of the Kingdom of God is the validation of the people of Israel, and the ways of true Judaism, fulfilled in the Jewish Messiah. So Matthew tells us of the Magi, the foreigners who come to worship the Messiah; the story of Jesus is about a restored Israel finally achieving its destiny as a light to the nations.

But in these differences, something they have in common is the story of the virgin birth.

Now the biology of the matter isn’t something I’d particularly want to get into fights over – not because I don’t believe it, in fact I do, but because I don’t think it’s all that important; and it is, as Fat and Frantic classically put it, ‘virgin on the ridiculous’; and the subject of futile debate.

But what it important, and striking, is that this aspect of the story is told by both Matthew and Luke, even though they tell everything else quite differently.

Now just to give you a quick crash course in New Testament source criticism – it’s almost universally held amongst scholars of the New Testament that Mark’s gospel was written first, and that both Matthew and Luke had Mark’s gospel literally in front of them as they wrote.

And it’s widely, but not universally, held that there was another document, known as “Q”, or the “sayings of Jesus”, that they both had, but is lost to us.

And then they also each had their own unique sources, eye witness accounts, the traditions remembered by their own faith communities.

But what we have in the story of the virgin birth is a story not in Mark, and not the sort of this that was in Q (which was a collection of sayings of Jesus), and recorded by both Matthew and Luke, but very differently by the two.

Meaning that in each of their two faith communities, so very different (Matthew’s Jews in Jerusalem, Luke’s Gentiles scattered in the Roman world) this story existed, and was considered important, from the very start of the Christian Church.

Why does that matter? Because it tells us that from the very earliest days of the Christian faith, the followers of Jesus believed that there was something about his birth; that God was involved in a unique way; that, in Luke’s words “the power of the most high will overshadow you”, or in Matthew’s “the child is from the Holy Spirit”

That at Christmas, God entered into the world of humanity as a baby. A baby… the image of God entering into humanity is that of a baby.

And often when we focus on that truth (and I’ve definitely preached this sermon) we focus on the humility of God; God, the almighty, taking such a powerless state. Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.
And quite right. It is an astonishing statement about the nature of God, that God was prepared to do this.
But there is something else about a baby: that perhaps the most unambiguous expression of human love is that of a mother for her new born child.
God enters the world through a relationship that is characterised by the fierce, protective, hopeful, nurturing, self sacrificial love of mother for child.
And in that relationship, God does not take the role of mother, of lover. God enters into humanity in a relationship of love in which God is the beloved.
God enters humanity not, first, by loving us, but by allowing us – allowing Mary – to love God.
God was prepared to be loved
And when you stop and think about it, that is perhaps an even greater act of humility than the whole giving up power thing.

For we surely know, it is often so much easier to love than it is to receive love.
It’s often easier to offer forgiveness than it is to accept it.
It’s often easier to be a good host than to be a good guest.
It’s often easier to give from our wealth than to receive in our time of need.
It’s often easier to give help than it is to ask for it.
It may be more blessed to give than to receive; but it is more courageous to be willing to receive than to give.

Perhaps at Christmas it might mean something that God – who is the very definition of love – in this story was not the lover, but was the beloved.

Not to say that a baby doesn’t love the mother – but it learns to do so; as it learns that it is somehow separate from her, a baby, a child, learns how to make “love” make sense.
I wonder what it might mean to say that in Jesus, God was learning how to love; learning from his mother, from his father, from those who were around him.

I wonder if it might not be the greatest act of self emptying of all in this amazing miracle of the incarnation that God, who is love, who created love, who defines love, chooses instead to be loved, and to learn how, in human terms, to give love.

I genuinely don’t know where we go with this, what it means. We call it the Mystery of Christmas for a reason. But if nothing more, it surely speaks to our willingness – or unwillingness – to be the ones who need help, the ones who don’t have it together, the ones who struggle to love, the ones who need to receive, not just to give.

That there is nothing wrong with needing to learn those things. For Jesus went there first.

Amen.

Part time children’s worker

St. John’s Uniting Church

Children’s Worker
15 – 25 hours per week (negotiable)

Are you passionate about kids and their place in the kingdom of God? Can you bring imagination, creativity, humour and warmth to helping children question, explore and develop their faith? Can you help create a welcoming and engaging environment where children are treated with kindness and respect; where they are supported, nurtured, challenged and encouraged to grow as individuals and as members of the church?

At St. John’s Uniting Church, Wahroonga, we have a small but vibrant and growing community of families with young children, who we strive to nurture in worship and discipleship. We also have some successful ministries which reach out to young families in local area (upper north shore), aimed at meeting both social and spiritual needs.

We are looking for an energetic and innovative committed Christian who has experience in working with primary and pre-school aged children to support these ministries and to grow them further.

If you can work with volunteers to co-ordinate teaching and worship for children on Sundays, nurture and support carers and their kids at a Friday morning community playgroup and teach SRE at the local primary school, this job could be for you!

If you’re successful, you’ll be part of the St John’s leadership team, planning and leading existing and new initiatives to reach children and their families in the wider community with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

You must be prepared to work within the polity and ethos of the Uniting Church in Australia, and must hold a valid Working With Children clearance.

If you are interested, please contact Rev. Dr. Chris Goringe for more information and a detailed Position Description: minister@stjohnswahroonga.org or 0402 012 418.
Applications close 31st January 2015

Download advert